01  Dec

I don’t know whether I feel ornery enough to call this a rant, but I’m increasingly disappointed at the selection of hybrids seed companies enter in state university corn silage hybrid trials. I’m speaking primarily of the several national seed companies which for some reason have decided to enter their some state trials but not others. Maybe it’s the cost of entering the trials, perhaps a philosophical decision made “at the top”, or perhaps something else. And maybe there’s a perfectly good reason for it, but the result is that it’s more difficult than ever to compare, for instance, Pioneer’s top-rated hybrids with those of Dekalb as well as the good regional seed companies entering many of these trials. Can the regional companies compete for silage yield and quality? Sure would be good to know! But increasingly some of these trials are dominated by the regional seed companies. For instance, the 2016 Cornell University silage trials include 29 hybrids each in two locations, but only two Mycogen hybrids and none from Pioneer or Dekalb.

It’s true that there’s not a lot of difference in fiber digestibility among conventional corn hybrids but there sure are differences in maturity and dry matter yield. There’s also a fair amount of difference in starch content and therefore in whole plant digestibility. But as it is now much is left to guesswork and the (often fantastic) claims by seed companies. One more reason to work closely with your seed dealer(s), but these folks are better at evaluating their own company’s hybrids than making comparisons between companies. Which should not surprise you in the least.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: December 1, 2016, 11:47 am | No Comments »

02  Nov

We move from Northern NY to Virginia each November,returning in late March. We do so for several reasons: To be closer to family, to escape the bitter cold, and because during the winter there’s almost nobody left around here, most all having departed for permanent or winter homes. Lots of summer residents around here maintain permanent homes in the Buffalo/Rochester/Syracuse metro areas, while others reside in Florida (or other relatively warm climates) during the winter. Winter population of Oak Point: 3. (Two during the month one old guy spends somewhere south of here.)

It’s very quiet around here during spring and fall, with virtually no traffic since the road we live on is a one-way loop. Especially when there’s little or no wind we can hear the train across the river in Ontario, and often the deep thrum of the huge diesel engines on ships in the St. Lawrence Seaway (which stays open late into the fall), but that’s about it. We often know when our mail arrives because it may be the only car driving past all morning!

Contrast this to where we live in Virginia, just south of the big city of Richmond. There’s a 4-lane highway about a mile from us and there’s constant traffic noise from that. And an actively used railroad isn’t much further away; a train has to sound its whistle at every crossing, and often during the night we can hear a whole bunch of warning whistles, first faint, then growing louder and then faint again. We’re seldom with anything other than the sounds of nature up north, seldom without traffic sounds down south.

Another big difference: Shopping. Around here it’s a 20-minute drive to anything more than a mom-and-pop store, and even then the choices are limited. We’re one of the few area in the U.S. that’s not within 15 minutes of a WalMart. But in Virginia we’re 5 minutes from all sorts of shopping alternatives (and less than 10 minutes from not one but two Walmarts!).

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: November 2, 2016, 12:30 pm | No Comments »

02  Oct
A dry summer

It was a very dry summer in much of the Northeast, with moderate to severe drought in parts of NY. But the region is nothing if not variable in weather conditions; I talked with a Vermont farmer who’d harvested four excellent cuts of alfalfa by the end of August and said he was looking at a “huge” corn crop. He isn’t going to take a fall alfalfa harvest because he already has more than enough forage. But combine dry weather and impending corn harvest for silage and there’s always talk of nitrate poisoning. But talk is about all we usually wind up with since rarely are there actual cases of nitrate poisoning of livestock. We can’t ignore the potential for problems because nitrate toxicity is a serious matter, but fortunately it’s also a rare one—at least in the Northeastern U.S. That’s for three reasons: First, the fermentation process reduces nitrate concentrations by about 50%, one more reason for farmers to make sure that their corn is completely fermented before attempting to feed it. Second, with the cost of fertilizer, most farmers can’t afford to apply enough fertilizer N to result in very high nitrate levels. Heavily manured may be the exception, but in much of this region manure is applied to corn fields in the fall so by the time the following summer rolls around much of the readily-available N is long gone. And third, nitrates concentrate in the bottom of the stalk. Unlike California and other parts of the Left Coast where corn is often chopped at a 2” stubble height, farmers in the Northeast (where stones are a fact, not a rumor) most corn isn’t chopped at anything less than about 6”. In fact, most farmers who think they chop at 6” haven’t actually measured it with a ruler. I’ve found that 8” stubble height is a lot more common than 6”.

This is similar to my experience with prussic acid poisoning, which is a reported threat when summer annuals such as sudan-sorghum are harvested either too early or too soon after a killing frost. Warnings about the potential for prussic acid poisoning almost always accompany any recommendations or discussions about summer annual crops, but in fifty years of working with farmers in the Northeast I can’t remember one time when cattle were actually poisoned by prussic acid. And it’s not because farmers always closely follow recommendations either!

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: October 2, 2016, 2:20 pm | No Comments »

Last month’s post was written when we were in the midst of the worst dry spell (perhaps drought) in many years, with some farmers saying that they had gone about two months without rain. August still wound up with about an inch less rain than the long-term average but thanks to several T-storms and torrential (if brief) downpours the scenery has changed for the better. Lawns that were parched brown and crunched underfoot–my wife said she could see puffs of dust coming up wherever I set down my foot–are now green and lawnmowers, unheard for over a month, are now running again. In some cases the grass has made such a comeback that you’d never know it was brown just a few weeks ago.

Such is not the case with some trees, mostly small ones growing where there’s usually ample moisture–and therefore shallow root systems–but the ash trees around here really took a beating, in many cases shedding all their leaves. This is the puzzle and a very suspicious development, especially with the Emerald ash borer, a devastating insect that kills ash trees, not far away. The infestation map for NY state indicates that the borer isn’t any closer than the Syracuse/Utica regions, but it was confirmed several years ago in the Ontario county right across the river from here. Since borer beetles can fly I’m not sure what would prevent them from making the one-mile trip across the St. Lawrence River. If it isn’t due to the Emerald ash borer, I’d like to know why a large ash tree at a friend’s place near here lost all it’s leaves in August while other deciduous species including maple and oak trees appear entirely normal. Just because the borer hasn’t been confirmed in Northern NY doesn’t mean it’s not here… The state did put up pheromone traps here at Oak Point looking for the borer but that was several years ago.

Almost 100 years ago we lost almost all the chestnut trees in the Northeast due to the Chestnut blight, then it was the elm trees due to Dutch elm disease. I’m old enough to remember a few of the last chestnut trees in Southern Connecticut, remember collecting chestnuts from under one, and I watched the row of elm trees lining both sides of the road leading to Miner Institute die one by one until none was left. Now I fear that our ash trees aren’t long from the same fate.


Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: September 6, 2016, 11:56 am | No Comments »

Many years ago at an agribusiness meeting I listened to a fellow from the Northeast Regional Climate Center discuss weather forecasting. He said that up to 48 hours their forecasting accuracy had improved a lot, but much beyond that it was just about as accurate as a coin toss!

Right now I’d take 50% accuracy, even for 24-48 hour weather forecasting. This area is in a drought, with about 2″ of rain in the past two months, so we follow weather forecasts more closely than normal. Time and time again we’ve had a 60% chance of rain in the forecast, and time and time again we wind up on the “bad” 40% side of the percentages. And with today’s reliance on computers, you’d think there would be some uniformity or agreement between the several forecasting services. But nooo: Yesterday morning Intellicast predicted an 80% chance of mid-day rain with over half an inch expected. NOAA forecast a 20-40 chance of rain with 1/4″ or less total. Weather.com, on the other hand, predicted only a 5% chance. We got a sprinkle about 9 AM, not enough to even wet the pavement, and my mid-day it was sunny, hot and almost cloudless. For the last month or so, for any of these services a coin toss percentage would be a big improvement.

Crop conditions vary widely across the North Country, not unexpected since a significant portion of our summer precipitation comes as hit-or-miss thunderstorms. This summer they’ve hit the eastern portion of Northern NY and missed the western portion. Crops at Miner Institute (Chazy) are excellent, while crops around here are burning up though there’s still some decent-looking early-planted corn. What’s really taken a hammering are grass fields, many of which have gone dormant since the first crop was harvested, and as warm as the soil is even a good rain won’t bring them back this summer. This is a very poor summer for shallow-rooted crops.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: August 2, 2016, 11:36 am | No Comments »

I freely admit that I’m against the mandatory labeling of foodstuffs. GMO foods have been studied extensively with no indication whatsoever that they pose any threat to human health. In fact you can make the case that some GMO foods are safer because by preventing insect damage by corn borers and corn rootworms the corn plant remains healthier. Healthy plants are less susceptible to plant fungi, and some of the toxins produced by these fungi are highly carcinogenic. Although it won’t be enforced for some months, Vermont’s GMO labeling law began on July 1st. While there’s reasonable hope that the U.S. House of Representatives will approve a reasonable national GMO labeling bill, then hash things out with the Senate and finally have the President sign it, in the meantime we’re seeing the initial reaction of food manufacturers to the Vermont labeling law. At last count food manufacturers have pulled over 3000 food products from Vermont shelves, apparently concluding that it’s not worth re-labeling their products for the relatively small market that Vermont represents. So at least temporarily, these food manufacturers are voting with their feet and are exiting Vermont.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: July 9, 2016, 1:52 pm | No Comments »

Looking at long-term U.S. alfalfa yield trends can be depressing since there’s been so little increase over the decades. Not that there hasn’t been any, but it pales compared to the tremendous yield gains of corn and soybeans. Genetic improvements in alfalfa quality have also been very slow in arriving, in great part because of the stubborn linkage between yield and forage quality. N-R-G, the variety developed and released by Cornell University, is a good example. It offered higher forage quality, but at the expense of yield. Looking at its performance in alfalfa variety trials was discouraging…and university plant breeders acknowledged how difficult it is to break that yield/quality linkage.

However, it now appears that new alfalfa varieties have recently been released that combine reliably higher forage quality with equal or better yields. These are reduce-lignin varieties, and anyone who know anything about ruminant nutrition realizes that while some lignin is needed to keep plants upright, too much reduces intake and therefore animal performance. These new alfalfas–and there are both GMO and conventionally-bred varieties available–accumulate lignin at a slower rate, so at the early bloom stage have about as much as “normal” varieties at the late bud stage. This means that farmers have another 5 to 7 days for the alfalfa to grow (and increase yield). It also means more time for it to accumulate root reserves, which should have an impact on stand life. One of the more significant results may be a reduction in the number of harvests per season. One fewer harvest means less labor, fuel, equipment wear and tear–and less crown-damaging wheel traffic. Time will tell, but at this point higher seed cost appears to be about the only drawback to reduced-lignin varieties. We still have a lot to learn about managing these varieties including whether cool-season forage grasses can be growth with them, but so far, so good.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: June 2, 2016, 1:38 pm | No Comments »

I’m continually impressed–sometimes amazed–at the progress plant breeders have been making, especially in the past 20 years or so, in developing varieties and hybrids with new and/or improved characteristics. Two cases in point: The ability of corn hybrids to tolerate less-than-ideal soil moisture conditions, and alfalfa varieties–both genetically modified and produced by “traditional” plant breeding techniques–with reduced/delayed lignin development.

In the case of corn’s ability to tolerate dry conditions it’s sneaked up on us: Both Monsanto and Dupont-Pioneer have been working hard at developing hybrids with this trait, but if you look at the ability of corn hybrids in general–not ones designated as “drought tolerant”–you’d see that plant breeders have been making progress in this characteristic for many, many years. Today’s hybrids not only have the ability to produce more corn grain per unit of nitrogen fertilizer, but to do so under tougher growing conditions than those of grand-daddy’s day. And when adequate moisture is present, the drought-tolerant hybrids will produce just as well as those lacking this trait.

I’m also optimistic about the impact that reduced lignin alfalfa varieties will have, particularly where alfalfa is grown in monoculture–no grass companion crop. These varieties have been shown to yield at least as well as conventional varieties, and in a way may be a step back in time since delayed harvest may result in one fewer cutting per year. That means less fuel, less labor, and–let’s not underestimate this–less wheel traffic damage. In fact, some midwest research has found that the reduced-lignin alfalfa actually yields more in three cuts than conventional varieties do in four. It’s still early, but so far reduced lignin appears to be a winner, with the only downside significantly higher seed cost. But spread over three or four years this price premium might seem like small change.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: May 13, 2016, 1:17 pm | No Comments »

There’s difference of opinion on the primary cause–long-term climate cycles or man-made global warming, but there’s no question that our climate has changed, and quickly enough that it should be noticeable to anyone with even a few grey hairs. That’s because there’s been significant, measured change in our climate just since 1990, a mere 26 years. The average dates of first and last frost have changed by 4 to 5 days, with an earlier last frost in the spring, and a later first frost in the fall. However, the change hasn’t been equal across the U.S., which should surprise nobody. In the Eastern U.S. the increased length of our growing season has increased by less than half as much–2 days at most. However, first and last frost dates don’t describe in-season temperature changes, and as you might expect these have also increased.

What does this mean for farmers? If you’re still planting the same crop maturities, particularly corn and soybeans, that you were 20 years ago it might be time to re-evaluate. Cornell University has found that the ideal maturity rating of soybean varieties for a particular area of the state is later than when in a previous evaluation. Therefore, if, for instance, you’ve been planting Group 1.2 maturity soybeans for many years you should give some consideration to a slightly later variety–perhaps Group 1.5 maturity. Or if you’ve been planting 95 RM corn hybrids, considering a move to 98 RM hybrids for at least a portion of your acreage, This assumes, of course that you’ve been able to mature the crops without difficulty, year in and year out–which especially in the case of corn harvested for silage, is NOT always the case. Because it’s still better to plant hybrids that will reliably mature on your farm, under your management, than to shoot for the moon and wind up with an immature crop.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: April 2, 2016, 11:31 am | No Comments »

We’re headed to St. Thomas for a week of family sun and fun including a day of deep sea fishing. We’re also heading into “Zika territory”, since St. Thomas is one of the Virgin Islands where the Zika virus has been confirmed. This doesn’t particularly concern me since none of our family is pregnant, or considering it. One of the proposed methods for confronting Zika is by developing, raising, and releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the infested areas. These insects would breed with the native population of mosquitoes but the resulting progeny would die before they reach adulthood and become a potential disease vector. This isn’t simply theory–the genetically modified mosquitoes have already been developed and there have been some trial releases. There’s a concern that we don’t know the impact this would have on the species that feed on these mosquitoes, particularly birds. Would the genetically modified mosquitoes only impact the one or two species that carry the Zika virus? We know the immediate goal, but how about those infamous “unintended consequences”? That’s how an intentionally-introduced species, kudzu, would up infesting the southeastern U.S.

That said, the human impact of Zika is so terrible, primarily devastating birth defects, that in this case I think that some level of risk is acceptable. Insects have shown a remarkable ability to withstand almost any attempts at eradication–in fact, I’m not sure that any insect has been completely eradicated though one particular species of ladybugs might be the exception. I admit that I’m “pro-biotech” but in this case think it’s something that many people who are normally on the fence would accept.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: February 18, 2016, 1:19 pm | No Comments »

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